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Office of International Education | Costa Rica Semester Abroad

Mexican Plants: Food, Agriculture, and Biodiversity

Course Location
Oaxaca, Mexico
Program Dates
Spring 2020
Travel Dates: 3/6/2020 - 3/14/2020
PBIO 195 - 2 Credit
Michael Sundue
Please see below for more information about costs associated with this travel study program.
No prerequisites specified

No syllabus provided; please contact the instructor.

Oaxaca Plants of Mexico 1Course Description

Mexican Plants is an immersion course in natural history, evolution, ethnobotany, and domestication of plants. This course takes place in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, renowned for its cultural and biological diversity. Our main objectives are to learn how to “read” plants by interpreting their structures, adaptations, ecology, and then see how modern and historical cultures have used them.

Our course begins in Oaxaca city, renowned for its cuisine, indigenous culture, and both traditional and contemporary artists. Oaxaca city offers an unparalleled interface between ancient ethnobotanical culture, traditional and modern food culture, and both subsistence and industrial agriculture. We take time to explore the city and enjoy its history, traditional open-air markets, and street food. We dig in first through a tour of history and contemporary politics of the city led by local cultural geographer Oliver Froehling Ph.D., followed by a workshop with a local chef who trains us to prepare classic regional dishes featuring regional ingredients. Mexico is an important center of plant domestication including crops like corn, beans, squash, avocado, tomatoes, tomatillos, and chile peppers. We explore the origins of agriculture and plant domestication at Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden. We then visit one of the sprawling markets where we survey an astonishing diversity of tropical and temperate vegetables and medicinal plants, as well pottery and textiles, intermingled with cheap goods of modern commerce. Next, we visit a mezcal distillery where we learn about the lengthy process of producing alcohol from Agave plants, a tradition at the very heart of Mexican culture. We savor the complex spirits and consider how the exploding hipster culture of artisanal mezcals may be threatening some Agave species to extinction.

Our course then turns toward the study of plant evolution and diversity by trekking out on a four-day ecotour through the mountain range known as the Sierra Juarez. Oaxaca is the most biodiverse state in Mexico with an astonishing number of distinct habitats in close proximity. We set out from the dry valley where the city is situated and climb to the frozen alpine zone of Cerro Pelón close to 10,000 feet elevation. We then descend into dripping wet cloud forests and humid tropical rain forests of the region known as La Chinántla, where indigenous Chinanteco is the primary spoken language. Accommodations are rustic cabins and food provided by the local community. At each site we survey the vegetation, identify the prominent species, take time to observe their unique features, discuss their animal interactions, pollination syndromes, and likely fruit dispersers. Animal diversity is also rich, and we take time to observe mammals, birds and insects when opportunities arise. In our final destination, the humid tropical forests of Yetla, we are accompanied by a local Chinanteco guide who provides a tour of the medicinal plants of the forest, many of which are still actively used by people in the community.

Instructor Michael Sundue Ph.D. is a research professor in the Dept. of Plant Biology at UVM. Michael has been conducting botanical field work in Oaxaca for 18 years. He has conducted botanical expeditions to tropical forests around the world and previously led numerous graduate and undergraduate field courses in botany.

Travel Study Costs and Fees

Program Fee: $817*

If you are admitted to the course, you will receive an email asking you to accept or decline the spot. To accept your spot, you are required to fill out the commitment deposit form and submit a $500 non-refundable deposit within 48 hours. For more information about payment policies and procedures, view the Travel Study Payment Policy.


  • Student housing accommodations
  • Cultural activities and excursions arranged by the lead instructor
  • Most meals

Not Included:

  • College tuition and fees**, see UVM Student Financial Services
  • Airfare, estimated cost $1,225
  • Cancel for any reason flight insurance (strongly encouraged)
  • Baggage fees
  • Vaccinations and any associated costs
  • Meals, estimated cost $30
  • Passport fees
  • Personal and entertainment expenses
  • Optional excursions
  • Anything not specified as included in the program

*Trip cost subject to change due to unanticipated changes.

**Travel Study courses are regarded as normal UVM courses and as such, normal tuition and fees apply.

Country Information

Visit the U.S. Department of State website for information regarding country health, safety risks, and laws for Mexico.